Behind the security gates at nuclear and high-energy physics labs run by the U.S. Department of Energy is a tight fraternity of scientists entrusted with exploring and harnessing the sub-atomic power of protons.
Their experiments can take years to plan, cost tens of millions of dollars – or more – and involve a small army of experts from around the world. Their findings are published in leading academic journals, make headlines in National Geographic, win Nobel Prizes, and expand the knowledge of mankind in significant ways.
Academic pedigrees run deep at labs such as Brookhaven, Fermilab, CERN and Los Alamos, where nametags of scientists identify names of universities with extensive roots in physics: Stony Book, Harvard, MIT, Cal-Berkeley, Michigan, Yale, Illinois, Columbia, Princeton – and to no one’s surprise in that respected crowd – ACU.
“Abilene Christian really is the world leader in involving undergraduates in physics research,” said Dr. Rusty Towell (’90), professor of engineering and physics who leads a team to New York each summer. “We don’t just have classes and labs here; we take students with us.”
So high is the reputation ACU has for educating the best undergraduate physics students that they are often the only pre-Ph.D. personnel invited to work alongside longtime physicists on experiments at major national labs. ACU undergrads, for instance, have built many large detector components used on PHENIX experiments on the RHIC (Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider Project) at Brookhaven in Upton, N.Y.
Dr. Donald Isenhower (’81), who is again overseeing ACU students working at Fermilab this summer, was recognized by his peers earlier this spring with the 2015 Prize to a Faculty Member for Research in an Undergraduate Institution, selected from among thousands connected with more than 750 physics programs around the nation. It came with a $10,000 award and the respect of a galaxy of colleagues.
“This is a great honor for Donald, our department and ACU,” Towell said. “Our university is now part of a very small and elite group that have been awarded this honor more than once.” The prize is from the American Physical Society and made possible by a grant from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. Dr. Michael Sadler, professor of engineering and physics who has been Isenhower’s mentor for nearly 30 years, was the first from ACU to receive the award in 1995.
“I have witnessed the remarkable enthusiasm and effectiveness in Donald’s mentoring style,” said Dr. Jen-Chieh Peng, professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-spokesperson of Fermilab’s E789 experiment. “Donald cares deeply about all his students and he spends long hours supervising and working with them,” Peng said. “The ACU group has earned the well-deserved reputation as a highly motivated, capable and responsible team.”
Peng said Isenhower has helped write more than 230 publications about research at Fermilab and Brookhaven, with 80 percent of them including ACU undergrads as co-authors.
“In my experience, the ACU professors with their undergrad students are unmatched in their serious research work at national labs and other facilities, said Dr. Michael Leitch, retired Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a veteran of the PHENIX experiment at Brookhaven, and a former member of ACU’s Visiting Committee in physics.
“ACU undergrads are often more studiously involved than many of the graduate students from other institutions,” Leitch said. “I believe they set an example, to students from other institutions and at higher levels, with these attitudes and attention to their work.” Leitch believes this rich hands-on experience is invaluable in putting theory to practice while showing undergrads how rewarding – and fun – research can be. “It shows them how complicated mathematics are really useful for learning about the smallest building blocks of matter; and also how complex large problems or questions can be addressed by a large team working together,” Leitch said. Teamwork is something ACU’s physics faculty understand well. Half of the department’s faculty – four generations worth – have undergraduate physics degrees from Abilene Christian to complement curriculum vitas showing internships, fellowships and significant research experience at the world’s top labs with physicists from around the globe. Isenhower got a taste of that teamwork during his doctoral studies at Iowa State University when he worked at CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, birthplace of the World Wide Web where 10,000 scientists from more than 100 nations collaborate on groundbreaking research on the best and biggest particle accelerators. He also earned a reputation as a detail-oriented, go-to physicist with trusted problem-solving skills.
His son, Dr. Larry Isenhower (’05) – who helped his father with research while still in high school, later worked on experiments for Fermilab and Brookhaven, and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin – is following in his shoes as a new ACU physics instructor.
“While scientists who do not know ACU may be skeptical, those of us who have seen Don and his students in action go out of their way to try to involve them in our experiments,” said Dr. Donald Geesaman, a Distinguished Argonne Fellow and former director of the Physics Division at Argonne National Laboratory.
Geesaman said the primary reason few undergraduates participate in experiments at national labs is that faculty rarely are willing to devote the extra time and energy to prepare and supervise them. “This is where Don excels,” Geesaman said.
Dr. Patrick McGaughey, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said Isenhower is a noted scientist who has contributed to some of the most important discoveries in his field, and the best science educator he has ever seen.
“I believe Donald’s most important impact on the field has been through the huge number of students he has educated and placed into graduate school. He instills a love of science and a level of motivation in his students that perhaps no other undergraduate school achieves,” McGaughey said.
– From ACU Today magazine, Spring-Summer 2015